Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Addle Essence

Less than a week out from Father’s Day I have reached a new level as a dad: I used the “F-word” for the first time when scolding my boys. My usage was something like: “With all the fucking space we have in this basement, I can’t believe you two boys can’t find a place to sit without sitting on top of each other and getting into a fight!”

That was it.

They were shocked. I don’t curse around my kids. Not much, at least. Maybe once a year I let one fly, and never have I used “fuck” around the kids. On the couple times I’ve been really upset I’ve tossed a “goddammit” or two. But I honestly think I average only one or two per year. Maybe three.

It was early evening, I was tired, I was trying to get something resembling dinner started. I had an evening meeting I needed to leave for in less than an hour and what I really wanted was a nap. I really didn’t want to deal with a crying 9-year-old whose hand was bent back by a 12-year-old who had to sit in the exact same place while they watched TV.

I continued: “That’s it. TV off. Each of you to the showers!”

And literally, “to the showers.” School ended last week for us and they had spent their second day at baseball camp. And they smelled. Smelled like boys do. They needed to wash away that odor and cool off, and so did I.

Then I waited for the inevitable regret to come. I had failed to live up to my own standards of a father. That is, a father who expresses his anger and frustration in a healthy way that is a roll model for my boys. I don’t believe it is right or necessary or even good to be calm, cool, and collected all the time, but I also believe it most important for kids, and boys especially, to have healthy examples of expressing anger.

So as I waited for the regret a funny thing happened: It never came. The regret never came. I’ll spare you the details of the rest of my rant directed primarily at my 12-year-old who, by the way, if he does not grow up to be a politician will surprise me greatly. He is a master of slippery debate and can poke a hole through the most solid parental logic. I learned some time ago to not engage him in debate. It’s hopeless and I’ll loose. Best is just to say what it is and move on even though he won’t give up on his end. And last night he was in rare form twisting each phrase and revealing its failures of logic all while punctuated by the high emotions of the unfair world existing in our house and that if someone could just listen to him, just once, maybe, maybe he could be spared the existential misery our family levies on him.

I recently finished a round of therapy by way of a book recommended by my friend and colleague Adrienne. A few weeks ago I had mentioned to her how, seemingly overnight, an adolescent had moved into our house. I used to have this loving, wonderful child and now I had, well, something different. I wasn’t caught by surprise exactly –  I knew it was coming – but I was surprised by how quickly it happened.

Not too long ago, at bedtime, I’d hug my future 12-year-old and he’d hug me back and I’d tell him I love him and he’d tell me he loved me back. Today I still hug him and tell him I love him, but instead of a hug back he just sort of lets his lanky arms flop out to each side of the bed. Sometimes he’ll let his arms accidently fall on my back as I lean over. I call it a hug but I suspect it’s more of a set of random muscle twitches causing his arms to fall over my back rather than on the bed. He does still, sometimes, verbally express his love for me. It isn’t quite “I love you.” It’s more like “blurgh.” Sort of a back of the throat guttural sound like something is stuck in his throat. Our cats make that sound just before they vomit up a hairball. But I know what it really means. One night, and I am not making this up, after I said to him “I love you,” he let loose a sustained muffled fart from below the bed sheets. I was too startled to do anything but laugh, which made him belly laugh. I think I replied, “I fart you too,” gave him another hug, and for good measure kissed him on the forehead. That really spoiled the moment (“Aahh, Dad!”) after which he wiped off the gross dad germs.

Of course I’d love to get a real “I love you,” but I know I won’t. Not for a while. Or at least not every night. There was a time when I stopped hugging my dad and probably didn’t tell him I loved him for 15 years. Maybe more. I actually remember the day I told my dad I didn’t want to hug him anymore. I was probably about 12 or so. And I remember it was uncomfortable but hugging him didn’t feel right either. That psychic need to separate from my parents and be my own person was its own thing and had to be obeyed. There was no way I could have articulated it that way then. All I knew was hugging my dad felt weird. In some ways I wish he and I had handled that transaction differently. Maybe my dad could have said something more than the “okay” that I remember. But he was figuring it all out for the first time too.

Which gets me back to the book “Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall: A Parent's Guide to the New Teenager” by Anthony E. Wolf Ph.D. If you have an adolescent, or one on the way, I highly recommend this book. I can’t say that I’m a better dad for reading it, but now I don’t feel quite the anxiety about how to deal with an adolescent. And apparently I feel empowered to let the “F-bomb” fly and to let it fly for effect.

Besides the cursing, here is what I took away from the book:

  • We want our kids to grow and be their own people and be successful
  • To do that, our kids must successfully separate from their parents and become independent
  • Adolescence is the time to do that
  • Each act of defiance is essentially a way for them to develop their own separate self and when we parents stymie that we stymie their development
  • Adolescence sucks for kids and their parents
  • It won’t last forever
  • The outcome is usually an amazing individual human being, warts and all

That is a gross oversimplification and there is more and some great examples that I really liked. There is also plenty on the scary shit that can happen to teenagers when they experiment with alcohol, drugs, and sex.

Ugh, alcohol, drugs, and sex. Thanks for that reminder, book.

As exasperating as my boys can be, they also amaze me. Even through the fog of hormones, my 12-year-old show flashes of the adult he’ll become. Sort of a coming attractions trailer for his adult self: Intelligent and funny, a heavy appreciation and ability for music. Outgoing, social, confident, and self-assured bordering on obnoxious and cocky. More than a bit scatter-brained and absent minded, like all good artists. Someone who can hold a fart for just the right moment.

That's something I can appreciate.

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